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Is Green Growth the Solution?

by Yaak Pabst Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 at 1:58 PM

Just as every millimeter of social progress must be fought for against capital interests, the protection of nature and climate must also be won against the rulers. In these struggles lies the future of the planet.


Green growth is supposed to save the planet. But what can green capitalism really do?

By Yaak Pabst

[This article published on 8/30/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, Klimaschutz: Ist grünes Wachstum die Lösung? - marx21.]

"The earth is not polluted because humans are particularly dirty animals, nor because there are so many of them. The fault lies in human society - in the way that society creates, distributes and uses the wealth that human labor extracts from the natural resources of this planet. But once the social origin of the crisis is recognized, then one can begin to devise social measures that would be appropriate to remedy it."

This 1971 quote comes from U.S. biologist and environmental activist Barry Commoner. Five decades later, his words are more relevant than ever.

Tipping elements and fossil capitalism

Fossil capitalism, more than any other social system in human history, has so deeply interfered with and destroyed natural metabolism that we are in the midst of an existential crisis of the entire Earth system.

Green growth

The Arctic ice sheet is melting away and becoming thinner and thinner - with serious consequences for the planet. For years, the assumption was that the climate was changing linearly. But scientific findings show: The climate can change abruptly. And this happens when so-called tipping points in the climate are reached. Image: 358611 / Pixabay

The accumulation drive of capital has inflicted deep and open wounds on the planet. What Marx still described as an "incurable crack in the context of social metabolism" has developed into an interconnected network of global cracks - Earth system research summarizes this development under the keyword "tipping elements in the climate and Earth system". Researchers now believe there are more than sixteen tipping points.

Small changes can have big consequences

These points in the Earth system have one thing in common: small changes can have big consequences, which often reinforce themselves. One example: as the climate warms, permafrost soils thaw - about one-sixth of the Earth's total surface is considered permafrost. Remains of plants and animals are preserved in the permafrost soils.

Green growth

Waves gnaw at the thawing permafrost on Wiese Island in the Arctic Kara Sea. A Russian weather station crashed into the sea in 2016. Image: Ivan Misin / WWF Russia

If the organic material thaws, it is decomposed by microorganisms and the carbon dioxide and methane it contains are released, which in turn further increases the greenhouse effect. Part of the climate research therefore assumes that stopping global warming in the long term at 1.5°C to 2°C could be even more difficult than previously assumed.

Center in the climate crisis

Countless studies and reports have now been published, all describing the dramatic consequences of climate change: storm surges and floods, heat waves and droughts, crop failures and famine, millions of climate refugees, further sea-level rise, faster melting of glaciers and permafrost - in short, the destruction of the homes of billions of people, animal species and plants is not only imminent, it has already begun.

How can the catastrophe still be stopped?

How can the catastrophe still be stopped? Many politicians, but also a large part of the climate movement, are sure that capitalism itself can offer a solution to sustainable climate protection. "Green" capitalism is the name of the concept, according to which the greening of the capitalist fossil system is to be implemented. In Germany, the Green Party stands for this. According to their national chairman, Robert Habeck, "Markets can be like sleuths, they find the right solution."

In fact, from the state of science and technological developments, humanity could have - indeed, should have - left the fossil age behind long ago in order to make the necessary emissions reductions. Renewable energies could replace CO2-intensive energy sources within a short period of time, and sustainable intelligent social planning - for example in transportation - could reduce CO2 emissions just as radically. The energy industry and transport are responsible for more than half of the world's CO2 emissions.

Green growth: the failure of the market

But the opposite has happened. Since the first "climate summit" almost thirty years ago in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, the international community of states has emphasized measures at several conferences according to which the market should be used as a steering instrument for climate protection. As is well known, this has been to no avail. Every year, greenhouse gas concentrations in the earth's atmosphere reach new record levels. Against this background, the reliance on the market seems strange. A look at the activities in the fossil fuel-driven CO2-intensive economic sectors of energy and transport shows that the market is far from making capitalism green.

Fossil capitalism is thriving

Currently, 6600 coal-fired power plants are still operating worldwide, according to the Global Coal Plant Tracker database. In addition to that, 1052 coal plants have construction permits or are already under construction. Unsurprisingly, the global trade in coal continues to flourish. In 2019, global coal production amounted to around 8.13 billion tons, compared with 7.05 billion tons ten years earlier. Groups from Germany still produced 107 million tons of lignite in 2020, and 330,000 tons were exported. Germany still has 197 coal-fired power plants in operation. The German government has decided not to shut down the last coal-fired power plant until 2038.

Oil consumption at record level

Oil consumption also continues unabated: For the first time in human history, global oil consumption has reached the historic mark of 100,000,000 barrels of oil. That is, 100 million barrels of 159 liters of oil each. On any given day. That is equivalent to a freight train of linked oil wagons stretching from southern Italy to the North Cape, as the online magazine Klimareporter reports. Even in Germany, oil is still the most important energy source after two decades of "energy transition."

Transport is almost entirely dependent on fossil oil - on the roads, on water and in the air. In 2020, there were around 63.7 million new passenger car registrations. Only 17 percent are electric cars, which are also not an ecological alternative. 83 percent of cars continue to pollute the planet with an internal combustion engine. The bottom line is that fossil capitalism and its associated corporations can continue to operate as if there were no climate change, no tipping points, and no planetary impact limits.

Green growth and the greens

Reliance on the market for ecology is misplaced. But the Greens sound quite different: "In our election program, we formulate ideas for a sustainable path toward climate-friendly prosperity, value creation and innovation. This path leads via the market, where smart impulses and the right incentives will lead to promising solutions. Our future prosperity depends on how well we, as an industrialized country, combine ecology and economy." The fact that confidence in the markets has declined rapidly in recent years has not escaped the Greens. That's why their concept also envisions an ecological investment program by the state to create many jobs. However, this does not mark a break with neoliberal ideas. Green capitalism is a contradictory mixture of market liberal ideas, enriched with a dash of "eco-Keynesianism."

The limits of green growth

Such concepts are representative of the notion of a "green capitalism" in which the "ecological potentials" of the market are to be unleashed. Political scientist Elmar Altvater aptly described what this means: "Of course, green investment must also be made worthwhile, i.e. profitable for investors. Therefore, a surplus must be produced from which the returns on green investment can be diverted. Without growth this is impossible and therefore green capitalism, like black fossil capitalism, remains dependent on growth."

Such a system is highly susceptible to crisis

Nature becomes a commodity. Even for "green" entrepreneurs:inside, driven by competition, they have to invest money in production to get more money through the sale of goods, which in turn has to be invested to get even more money. A company that cannot keep up with the competition will go under. Such a system is highly susceptible to crisis.

The crisis of the solar industry

The crisis in the solar industry in Germany from 2010 is a case in point. After the German government massively cut subsidies for photovoltaics, there was a slump in sales, insolvencies and mass layoffs. The once world's largest solar cell manufacturer Q-Cells in Bitterfeld-Wolfen was also affected. While around 350 solar cell manufacturers existed in Germany in 2011, there were only a few dozen left in 2019. From 2011 to 2017, the number of people employed in the solar industry fell from 156,700 to 42,800. By 2020, only 31,000 people will be working in photovoltaics in Germany - a decline of more than 80 percent within 10 years.

The ecological benefit is a sideshow

The share of renewable energies in Germany in primary energy consumption (PEV) is therefore only 17 percent. The CO2 monsters (mineral oil, natural gas and coal), together with nuclear power (which also does not count as renewable energy), still account for 83 percent of energy generation in 2020. Globally, things don't look any better: Despite record growth rates in wind (12.1 percent in 2019) and solar (23.8 percent), renewables as a whole accounted for only 11 percent of global energy consumption.

So the market is definitely producing "green" companies. But these use technological progress primarily to generate profits. The ecological benefits are a sideshow. If the industry is no longer profitable, the market collapses and investors withdraw, with devastating consequences - both for the employees and for the urgently needed energy transition. Competition and the profit economy cannot exploit the potential of technical inventions, so that truly sustainable development fails to materialize.

Are better technologies the solution?

The supporters of green growth, however, would have us believe that better and better technologies are the solution. But if you take a closer look, you will notice the pitfalls of green technophilia.

Green lie: "Agrofuel

Example "biofuel": There is nothing sustainable or climate- and environment-friendly about "agrofuel" (Read here the marx21 article: "There is no sustainable capitalism"). For the cultivation of raw materials such as palm oil, sugar cane or soy, large areas of rainforests are cleared in Asia, South America and Africa. Massive amounts of CO2 are released in the process. The destruction of forests and peat soils has at times made Indonesia the third largest CO2 emitter in the world. The author of the book "The Green Lie," Kathrin Hartmann, says: "So instead of 'organic,' rainforest destruction, pollution, land theft and higher CO2 emissions end up in the tank - and hunger. The "agrofuel" boom is exacerbating social problems worldwide. When large areas of agricultural land are used for energy crops, there is competition with the cultivation of food. One consequence is that more people are going hungry. The world's fields could already feed four billion more people well today if fodder and energy crops weren't growing on them." (Read the full marx21 interview with Kathrin Hartmann here).

Growth compulsion

The core idea of green growth is based on the assumption that capitalism is both part of the problem and part of the solution. But this overlooks the fact that growth also has an ecologically relevant "material" side. Even green growth can only be sustained by incessantly adding more materials (raw and auxiliary materials, machinery, tools and other labor inputs) and energy to production. Even if every company in the world were more careful with resources, growth would eat up the efficiency gains. This is because nature cannot replenish resources at the rate they are consumed under market conditions. Only an economy that takes into account the character and pace of ecological cycles and does not leave this framework is sustainable. But this contradicts the capitalist compulsion to grow.

Green growth = green imperialism?

Capitalism has developed unevenly and unevenly. Poor countries contrast with rich ones. According to the World Trade Report, four-fifths of global production and two-thirds of the global agricultural economy are concentrated in just 15 countries. This disparity is a consequence of the fact that the means of production are privately controlled and serve the realization of profits. State ownership of the means of production does not change this situation; via international competition, there is a compulsion for growth here as well. So "greening" capitalism will not change anything.

Why green capitalism ultimately fails

Even in the developed industrialized countries, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Wages are also a cost factor for ecologically oriented corporations: How high they are, whether or how much codetermination of the workforce there is, and whether a "green" company cuts jobs if the return on investment is too low, depends on the unionization and the assertiveness of the workers. To assume that a solar entrepreneur is per se nicer to "her" workers than a coal entrepreneur would be naive.

Like production, capitalism has globalized the destruction of nature. That is why globally planned action is necessary. But the antagonism between competing companies and states stands in the way. Competition and the market are not compatible with an ecologically and socially sustainable society.

System Change, not Climate Change!

Ultimately, there is no way around eliminating the market economy and replacing it with a society in which production and consumption are democratically planned and determined by workers and consumers. Only then can the functioning of natural cycles be consistently taken into account. Developments in the next decade will determine whether the planet can still be saved. The insight of the US-American biologist and environmental activist Barry Commoner that we need a fundamental social change is now seen by many.

How can the ecological turnaround succeed?

Whether an ecological turnaround succeeds, however, depends on which path is taken and who the actors are. If we really want to save the planet, we have to produce in a completely different way and immediately turn our backs on fossil fuels, the current industrial agriculture and individual transport. What follows from this? Naomi Klein, author of the book "The Choice. Capitalism vs. Climate," writes: "We cannot leave our future to the market. I've learned that change will never come from the top, but must start at the bottom. There is real potential at the intersection of anti-austerity activists, the labor movement, and the climate movement for new visions of a more just social system that can end the economic crisis and the climate crisis. The need for radical change is not a pipe dream of mine, but a plain fact. We are out of non-radical options."

In these struggles lies the future of the planet

In most concepts of green capitalism, the cards are reshuffled in the upper echelons of society, between bosses and politicians. The role of the mass of the population is to put their crosses in the supposedly "right" place on election days and to trust the actors in politics and business. This will go wrong. Because the considerable resistance and inertia of the fossil energy companies and the oil industry cannot be broken in this way. They are too powerful for that and have too much influence in politics. Just as every millimeter of social progress must be fought for against capital interests, the protection of nature and climate must also be won against the rulers. In these struggles lies the future of the planet.

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